January 3, 2007 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Custom computer! How?

I've finally amassed the cash to buy a sweet ass new machine. My needs are still the same as they were here -- CAD, graphic design stuff, a bit of video and programming -- but I've decided to get a PC assembled specifically for my needs.

But.. how? I know I walk into a shop, slap a schwack of cash on the counter and push the "make-sweet-ass-computer-now" button, but how do I go about finding a decent, reliable store to do this? I'm in Toronto, Ontario, but general advice, as well as specific store recommendations is welcome.

I've also been poking around for guides and documentation on this process, but while I'm here: does anyone know of any particularly useful references or such?
posted by slipperywhenwet to Technology (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I had a really great experience this-a-way:

Pick a motherboard based on reviews and specifications.

Find a small time pc builder that will build what you want, customized down to the power supply.

Don't be intimidated, just read the reviews... this way you know why you got what you got, and didn't pay for anything you didn't really need.
posted by ewkpates at 10:10 AM on January 3, 2007

Besides the specialized GFX card and monitor, you really don't need much more than extra ram and hard drive space -- which are customizable on systems from Dell, Gateway, eMachines, etc.

If you know your way around a motherboard, you can save yourself $200-300 by building it yourself from a bare bones kit.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:10 AM on January 3, 2007

I think that just about your only option is going to be one of the smaller, independently-owned shops. Big retailers like Best Buy and Futureshop (same company, I know) will sell you a "customized" PC, but it's just going to be options picked from a list of what HP has available, not whatever components you want.

You might consider doing it yourself, too. It's really not terribly difficult to do. The only "gotcha" I can think of with modern hardware is that you'll need a floppy drive if you want to install Windows XP on a modern SATA hard drive.
posted by CrayDrygu at 10:13 AM on January 3, 2007

College St., east of Bathurst, west of Spadina. Any of those stores would be happy to help.

Frontier PC lets you set up a custom system online, they build it and send it to you. Or you can order all the parts unassembled, if you're the masochistic type.

Remember that one of the most important and overlooked factors in computer satisfaction is NOISE. Build a quiet computer - quiet case, quiet fans, quiet power supply, quiet everything. It makes a huge difference.
posted by jellicle at 10:21 AM on January 3, 2007

"Remember that one of the most important and overlooked factors in computer satisfaction is NOISE."

Wow, I totally forgot to mention that, even though it was a key factor in my current PC. I bought myself an Antec Sonata case, and it's indeed pretty quiet. Then I ruined it by putting a huge Thermaltake fan on the CPU. Don't make the same mistake.
posted by CrayDrygu at 10:31 AM on January 3, 2007

The Ars Technica System Guides are a great place to do some preliminary research. They update them regularly, and they have three different categories for recommendations.

Once armed with good research, I usually head to NCIX - they'll build your machine for you and test it for a modest fee. Their prices are usually tough to beat, but they're not local if you have a problem.

And besides quiet, I always stress to get more RAM than you think you need. Way more. I didn't heed my own advice when I bought my Mac Mini, and I regretted it until I broke down and bought 2Gigs and had it installed.
posted by Nodecam at 10:39 AM on January 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

CrayDrygu: Zalmann CNPS9500. 'Nuff said.

I was just going to chime in and say that most large PC builder (Dell, etc.) cases suck unless you spend some serious dough for their workstation machines (which are actually pretty nice). That said, I wouldn't trust any of the local computer shops here with the task you're describing, but that may not be true for your area.

It is well worth the dough to get a quality PC case. Same goes for the easily overlooked power supply. Investing in both will help you in your quest for a cool, quiet machine

Anandtech has always been one of my favorite hardware review/test sites, and they have a great set of build guides here: I spent a couple days researching last year and came up with a great system based on what I read on Anandtech. Ordered everything from Newegg and have been thrilled with the machine.
posted by kableh at 10:40 AM on January 3, 2007

jellicle -- I've been in and out of those stores a bunch, lately, as I was shopping for a new printer. They all seemed a little sketchy. Is there any particular one you've dealt with?
posted by slipperywhenwet at 10:46 AM on January 3, 2007

Well, if you're nervous about checking out smaller stores, larger computer stores [like CompUSA and Microcenter, if they have those in Toronto] do build custom computers - actual custom ones, where you specify every part, not just choose parts from a list. You're not necessarily limited to what they carry, either - you can buy parts elsewhere [generally they'll be cheaper online somewhere] and hand them over to the builder to add in. You will be paying a building fee, though, and my guess is it'll be larger than the fee you'd pay at a smaller hole-in-the-wall store. If you go this route, make sure you go after educating yourself about your specific needs & options - there are generally some really competent employees, but you need to be able to tell that you're talking to one of them.

I'm currently finalizing a parts list for a custom desktop of my own, and, due to lack of time, plan to get someone else to build it, so I've been reading up a lot on parts. People have already linked to the Ars Technica and Anandtech guides, so here's another set: Tom's Hardware has a guide to component selection that might provide a starting point for you. [They also have guides to choosing vendors and building it.] You might want to check out forums for people who do CAD & graphic design stuff - they'll probably have more specific suggestions for graphics cards, and possibly other parts as well [monitor, motherboard, etc.] They'll probably also have some ideas about minimal system requirements for CAD & video programs. Other aspects of the specs will be determined by your usage patterns - do you hate computer noise? Do you want RAID for backup? How much storage space do you need? And so on.
posted by ubersturm at 11:31 AM on January 3, 2007

I think there are some questions that you need to answer for yourself, to pick the best kind of firm to work with here. You need to decide exactly how much involvement and control you want over this project.

On one hand, if you want to do everything but the physical assembly -- you want to do the research and pick out all the parts, down to the CPU heatsinks -- then the person you choose to work with is a lot less important. All they need to do is take the parts you hand them, and put everything together. Any computer geek could do this for you for $100, possibly less if you find a student who needs extra cash.

The other extreme is where you want to delegate all the design decisions out to somebody else. In this case, you need to trust their judgment more; I'd go for an established-but-small computer shop (if you can find one these days). Big-box stores aren't going to be worth much here, and might push you towards components that they have a high profit margin on. You need to think about this route less like you're purchasing an appliance, and more like you're commissioning a painting. You need to find somebody who you can explain your needs to, and who "gets" you.

Personally if you can spare the time and are interested, I think you're better off being as involved as possible. Picking all the components will mean no surprises later on ('oops, he put in a 180W power supply, and now I can't put in another drive...'). I've found that a good way to maintain your list is to use the 'wish list' feature of NewEgg. Even if you don't end up ordering from them, it's a good way to keep track of what pieces you've decided on, and how much each is going to cost. Before you buy, I'd print this page out and take it to the assembler, just to make sure it looks like something they can handle.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:38 AM on January 3, 2007

I think that I will be rather carefully picking the components myself, and might even assemble it myself -- I'll take a look at the Tom's Guide for system assembly to try to get an idea if it'll be a Neat Geektastic Fun Time Project or more like an Expensive Oh God Why time. Right now I've narrowed my processor choice down to a Core 2 Duo E6600 or 6700, and I'ma start from there. Next step is mobo.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 12:32 PM on January 3, 2007

Just heard back from a friend who bought a custom computer recently. He got it through Velocity Micro. I've seen it and they did a great job (clean layout, cables tied, quality parts, etc.). He initially thought it was DOA but turned out he was hooking his monitors up wrong or something silly. Either way they paid for overnight shipping to get it back to him ASAP, and were helpful on the phone, he said.

Just a thought. I'd still rather build one myself =)
posted by kableh at 1:08 PM on January 3, 2007

Actually you can get a dell customized with a FireGL, (in the model I linked too, it's only $61 more then with the standard gaming card). This will be fully tested and configured for you before they even send it out.

Remember, dell gets volume discounts others can't. As fun as building a PC is, it won't really save you much money in the end, unless there's something you don't need or you're going to cannibalize parts from an old machine. And dells are pretty quite.

Boring, I know, but this is probably your best bet, IMO.
posted by delmoi at 3:04 PM on January 3, 2007

Something Awful's computer subforum has a great parts picking guide.

As far as purchasing goes, I've had good experience with BC based NCIX, but have never had a computer built from them. I just order components. They're cheap and easy to deal with. (I am in no way affiliated with them, natch)

Good luck and have fun!
posted by ODiV at 3:10 PM on January 3, 2007

Sounds like you're better off buying a configured system online, unless you want completely control of the detailed specs, like # of sata2 ports, raid chipsets, etc. The video card, ram, other major components are all configurable online.

You'd save probably around 10-20% buying from Dell, HP, etc than building it on your own. Plus you get the tech support.

I used to build my own machines but found its better to find a deal online.

@kableh: Most Dell, HP, Sony cases are way better than most cases you buy from the store. My cheapo pentium D system from dell ($500) has a extremely quiet btx case that is extremely easy to maintain (no screws for anything).

Now that I'm looking into the new core 2 duos, buying online vs separate components will probably save me around $200.
posted by mphuie at 3:35 PM on January 3, 2007

The good thing about Dells and HPs is that they're cheap. The bad thing about Dells and HPs is that the're cheap.

I am seeing a lot of systems come in to the computer repair shop where I work looking for video card upgrades. A large number of the Dells and HPs I am seeing have onboard video and are missing video card slots making upgrades difficult and generally not worthwhile.

I imagine you'd be getting a good video card anyway so the Dell/HP you pick would have a graphics slot. I'd check into all of the components anyway, because in my experience they will skimp when they can.
posted by ODiV at 4:05 PM on January 3, 2007

I also hear tell that you have to ship Dells back at your expense for servicing, and that HPs tend to be poorly laid out.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 4:09 PM on January 3, 2007

I can't think of any good stores in Toronto to go to for a custom configured PC, mainly because all the good stores tend to compete on price rather than service. And why bother going to a store at all for a PC if not for service? College Street is a good call, seeing as there are tons of tiny mom'n'pop computer stores along the stretch west of Spadina. They may all do great work, but because they're small it's hard to find someone who's gotten their computer built by them.

If you decide to buy parts and put it all together yourself (not so hard if you're somewhat familiar with the inside of a computer) you really have just two names to consider in Ontario: Canada Computers and NCIX. Both are reasonably competitive on price, and NCIX is in B.C. and so doesn't charge you PST (so if you find a product with cheap shipping, you may save a bit over the Canada Computers price).

If you decide to get your computer built by a store, those are still the two places I'd check out, though Canada Computers is not well-known for their customer service (especially if you don't know exactly what you're looking for). For what it's worth, I've never really had any major problems dealing with them.

(Though it's not quite in the area, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Kingston Computer Planet—back when they first opened a couple of years back, they were apparently run mostly by ex-Canada Computers staff who were fed up with the lousy service and started their own place. They've always been helpful and friendly, and only slightly more expensive than CC. If you can find a Toronto equivalent, hang on to them!)
posted by chrominance at 4:38 PM on January 3, 2007

You might want to check out this company (they have stores in Toronto and in New York).....I have been looking around myself and stumbled onto them on Ebay (good feedback) and then I went directly to their website......any configuation that you want is available and the prices seem pretty fair.
posted by DonM at 4:49 PM on January 3, 2007

Use a good thermal paste between the CPU and heatsink rather than one of those stick-on foil gaskets, and don't use much. A blob the size of a match-head dobbed right onto the middle of the CPU is plenty. Use the heatsink itself to squoodge the blob around on the top of the CPU and spread it out, and don't pull the heatsink off again before clipping it into final position. If you absolutely must look at the results of your squoodging to ensure your technique is covering the whole CPU, wipe it all off again and re-do with a fresh blob for final assembly, and don't look at that one. You don't want air bubbles in your thermal paste film.

Apart from that issue, building a PC from bits is basically Lego.

Don't go hog-wild with the cable ties. Personally I prefer not to use them at all because they make taking things apart again such a pain in the arse. Any unused power supply cables can just get tied in a loose knot around other cables. As long as you keep the airflow pathways mostly clear, and make sure no cables are going to bump into spinning fan blades, you're good. SATA drives are a big big help with this - worth the extra few bucks for ease of system assembly even if you don't care so much about performance.
posted by flabdablet at 6:12 PM on January 3, 2007

I'm in Toronto, but your question is a little general for specific recommendations, I think..

The real question is how much service you need, how much effort you want to go to, and how low a price you want.
  • You can buy individual components, one at a time, from US sellers on ebay and BST forums. Prices are much lower in the US, but most great American deals aren't available here, so you can let ebay and BST forums broker those deals for you. However, you will have no service, and it takes a huge amount of work.
  • You can go with local computer shops, that way you can at least offload the responsibility for checking compatibility. Service levels vary though, a lot, from person to person as well as store to store. This is made much more complicated because recommendations are not very informative, the sample size is just too limited. Enthusiasts/power users don't have any use for "service" by most definitions, so their recommendations aren't useful (applies to my recommendation, if no one else's), and "regular users" can't really determine how skilled the techs are, only how nice a particular employ was.
  • You can buy a Dell. Watch RedFlagDeals or PriceNetwork for the latest one day only hot deal.
I'm happy to help further, and with component recommendations, if you like..

Start with:
CPU: Don't go lower than the cheapest dual core on the market, which will cost you at least $100. Next reasonable step up is the cheapest Core2Duo you can find ($200) and the next step is the cheapest Core2Duo with 4mb cache ($350?)

Motherboard: Asus P965 board, about $150 ?

Memory: Don't go enthusiast. Something relatively generic, like Kingston value ram or something, should be about $100/GB.

Video: Not my area.. Certain applications will like Nvidia better than ATI - specifically, WoW, apparently. Something around $150..

Hard Drive: Rich and lazy, buy a Western Digital Raptor. Need best performance possible, go with 15K rpm Cheetahs and a SCSI controller - this can be cheaper than a Raptor on BST forums, or much, much more at retail.. Just want to get to work, buy whatever.. for budgeting, start at $100.

Everything else: Moderate generic case and power supply, about $75, a DVD writer at $40, a multi card reader at $15, maybe a TV tuner?
That is close to $700.. It is easy to eat up money if your budget is higher, and you could probably scrape a couple of hundred off if your budget is lower. If your budget is lower than $500, probably better to go with a Dell.
posted by Chuckles at 7:14 PM on January 3, 2007

I don't have any specific recommendations for places on College St. - I usually am looking for a particular part of some kind, and I just go into store after store until I find one that has it at a reasonable price.

I will second the note above that Dell et. al. can actually sell you a good, cheap computer. Dell cases are well-made and pretty quiet, and Dell does get huge volume discounts. You have to work hard to beat them - you have one factor going for you (you can buy from places with less overhead than Dell) and one factor going against you (Dell buys CPUs by the cubic meter), and there's no telling which factor is actually stronger, so if Dell prices a PC at $1500, who knows whether you can get it for $1400 or $1600 from someone else.

I wanted to specify a VERY quiet computer for my most recent one, so I didn't buy from Dell, but I certainly considered them.
posted by jellicle at 7:25 PM on January 3, 2007

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